16 March 2005

Interview: Fialkov on Elk's Run

It's a sad fact in the comics industry today that succesfully launching a brand new title is a Herculean feat for the Big Two, requiring a massive marketing and promotion campaign with no guarantees of success. For independent publishers, it's a near impossible task. Even sadder is the fact that the lower half of the Diamond Top 100 - wholly dominated by mainstream super-heroes, historied licenses and/or A-list creators - typically bottoms out around 25,000 copies, making "successful" a somewhat relative term.

So what to do when a really good comic book comes along, one not in the front of the Previews catalog, tied to a well-known license or featuring a Wizard-proclaimed fan favorite creator? You work the hell out of the word-of-mouth angle for all it's worth and hope for the best.

Elk's Run is just such a book, from Hoarse & Buggy Productions, publishers of the surprise hit Western Tales of Terror. Created and written by H&B Editor-in-Chief, Joshua Hale Fialkov, with art by Noel Tuazon and colors by Scott A. Keating, it's an atmospheric tale of strange doings in the small West Virginia town of Elk's Ridge. I had the pleasure of previewing the first issue yesterday and was duly impressed, both with Fialkov's plotting and scripting, and especially with Tuazon's cinematic, Michael Lark-ish artwork. Add Keating's coloring, which perfectly accentuates the edgy, ominous tone of the story, and you've got a stellar debut issue of a promising comic book.

Comic Book Commentary: What's the 30-second pitch for Elk's Run?
Joshua Hale Fialkov: Elk's Run is a story about a small town that's living a double-life. The residents lead a sleepy existence, but, underneath, a full on war is brewing.

CBC: When I read the first issue, Shirley Jackson's short story The Lottery came to mind. What was your inspiration for Elk's Run?
Fialkov: The Lottery is a story that comes up a lot. I think the first issue has kind of a similar feel, but, by issue 2 we're off and running in a totally different direction. I lived in a few small towns in my day, mostly having moved into them, rather than being from them, and it always amazed me how tightly knit the communities were, and how much they distrusted "outsiders." I'm also fascinated by cults and militia-type groups, and I've read countless books and articles about them. I had a professor in college who grew up as a member of a "fringe religion," and while far from what actually happens in Elk's Run, a lot of the stories he told us had a bearing on the human interaction and sociological aspects of the storytelling.

CBC: You're planning to tell the story using a different character's perspective in each issue. What made you choose that device, as opposed to a single character or omniscient narrator?
Fialkov: Well, a couple of reasons. Primarily, it gives me the opportunity to write in a variety of genres, all while telling essentially the same story. We go from coming of age, to war drama, to full-out action, and even some psychlogical horror. I think that as a culture we look at these "groups," be they militias, cults - hell, even political groups - and we see them so much from the outside that we don't actually get to understand that, no matter how far off-base they are, each person is there for their own reason and complies with the requirements of their clique with some actual thought, and not just from a blank zombie-like POV. I look at this from more of a psychological standpoint, I guess, as a means to tell the story, rather than letting the psychology be glossed over for the sake of plot, plot, plot.

CBC: You have some great blurbs from Bendis, Ellis and others for the first issue, and yet you've been quite vocal about the pre-orders for it being less than you'd hoped. Why is it so difficult to launch new comics these days? Is it the retailers fault? Readers? Publishers?
Fialkov: Well, it's sort of an interesting time in the industry. Nobody is selling what they should be. Hell, Marvel can't even launch new books, why should I be any different? What it comes down to is that the system in place for comics now - everything from publishers, to distributors, to retailers - is set up as a roadblock for the industry. Shops are forced to take risks on books constantly and, if it comes down to a book from a marginally-known publisher versus the 30-part Batman/X-Men/Superman crossover event of the week, they're going to pick the one with guys they know best. What's funny to me is that Western Tales of Terror (our other book) is nigh impossible for Diamond to keep in stock because it sells out so quickly everywhere it is. That's a book with three strikes against it in the traditional market: it's an anthology, black and white, and independently-produced. Yet, people can't get enough of it. I think that the word of mouth on Elk's Run is what's going to make it happen because, frankly, everybody who's seen it has really flipped for it. We know that it's a waiting game, it just pains us to see that something that was promoted so copiously, and universally praised, can't get traction in the market. I can't count the number of e-mails from other young creators saying, "If a book as good and well-produced as Elk's Run can't get a foothold, how the fuck am I supposed to?"

CBC: The new Red Sonja comic book is debuting with a $0.25 cover price, which reportedly boosted pre-orders to an impressive 200k. A little more than that, actually. Conan did the same thing a year ago, and has since become a mainstay in the Diamond Top 100. Though technically indies, both are well-known properties in the comics world with long histories and, as such, could be considered exceptions. What sort of marketing effort is Hoarse & Buggy able to put behind a book?
Fialkov: I think you nailed it. While Conan and Red Sonja are indies, they're still huge name characters, with huge name talent behind them. So, they're going to get the higher orders. Doing a low price point offer like that has it benefits, to be sure, and we're working on building some of those on a lower scale with some of our retailing partners, but the economics just aren't there to do it on a weird (but beloved) indie book like Elk's Run. I think what it comes down to is just letting people see the books and the floodgates of word of mouth will start to open. At least I hope so. The key thing is that a lot of people assume because a book gets lots of coverage it'll be carried in their local store. The fact is that most retailers are way too busy to spend as much time trolling the internet as we do, and unless the book is in that front half of Previews, they're probably not seeing it. So please, if you like an indie book, even if you aren't going to pre-order, let your retailer know about it. Both retailers and publishers'll thank you.

CBC: How did you get into comics? Is Hoarse & Buggy and Western Tales of Terror your first comics experience?
Fialkov: I come from a TV and Film background. I have an indie feature I produced some time ago now, and had a TV series that got picked up (and then quickly thrown in the crapper after September 11th), and I ended up in Los Angeles looking for writing work. There just wasn't any to be found (the reality boom really messed up the careers of a lot of TV writers) and I wasn't content to just let myself sit around waiting for someone to pick up one of my scripts. So, I took the big step and teamed up with a friend of mine, and we began making mini-comics, webcomics, and cartoons. The webcomics took off, and led us onto making Western Tales.

CBC: What are some of your favorite, non-Hoarse & Buggy comics right now?
Fialkov: I'm a bit of fanatic, actually. I'm a huge fan of all of Brian K. Vaughan's stuff, especially Runaways and Ex Machina. Sleeper is another work of genius, and Brubaker and Phillips just kill on it month in, month out. Warren Ellis and Steve Niles are both doing some very cool stuff in their respective work as well. I think we're lucky in that we have so many great books out right now, but a bit cursed because so few people are seeing them.

CBC: Back to Elk's Run, why should readers seek it out?
Fialkov: Well, I genuinely believe it's one of the best titles on the market today. It's wholly unique from anything else in comics, and has some of the best (and most inspiring) art you can see in a comic today. I can't vouch for the writing, but, the rest of the team are all destined for some goddamn wonderful things.

CBC: Well, I can definitely vouch for the first issue, both the art and writing, and say that it's a comic well worth picking up. I'm certainly going to. Best of luck!
Fialkov: Thanks so much, man.

Joshua Hale Fialkov grew up in Pittsburgh, PA where he got beat up a lot, which lead to him moving to Boston where he got a BFA in writing and directing for the stage and screen, and then worked in the New England film industry, until finally deciding to move to Los Angeles to do it properly. He lives with his long time girlfriend, Dina, and his two cats, Smokey and The Bandit. He is the Editor-In-Chief of Hoarse & Buggy Productions and the creator/writer of Elk's Run.

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